Saturday, April 14, 2012

Fiction: Beyond the Hedge (part 1)

Here's some more fiction, this bit detailing some of the backstory of the halfling porter one of the parties I'm running hired to watch after their things, go rent rooms ahead of them, and generally doing all the things that adventuring parties like to get out of the way with a minimum amount of fuss.

Barley wiped the sweat from his brow. There were more stones to get rid of, and a tree-trunk left behind in one of the corners of the new field, but he needed to rest. His brother had already found a stool to support him and was sipping warm wine from a skin. Barley grunted and threw his weight into the work, but the rock wouldn't budge. "Come over here and help me with this!" he complained, shooting Alder an angry look.

His brother laughed. "Yew just wait there," he said, gesturing with his skin full of wine. "I'll be along in a minute." Alder was older than Barley and his wiry arms were full of knotted strength. They both shared their father's pale blond hair and deep blue eyes, but Alder was heavy built while Barley had always been a slender lad. Angry that his brother wasn't going to help, Barley dropped the ropes and stalked over to the unfinished wall.

All spring they had been building it, taking stones from the new field and piling them up by the road to make a little barrier. Their father, old Pellitory, had been dead and gone for three years but that hadn't slowed their ma' down any. Like all halfling families, she was in charge of the money and properties, and a week after their da' was dead she had purchased the new land beyond the hedge. Barley didn't understand why. They'd always been Hedgemen, as far back as Red Hedgeman who was one of the first to come and settle the land on the far side of the Drakesmere.

Now, they had land on both sides of the hedge, the marker boundary beyond which elvish law was feeble and couldn't be relied on. That didn't stop the Twywynne from selling land there, though. There were halflings from Cairaw aplenty who wanted to buy up patches of farm on the far shores of the lake, no matter how close to the Dragonmoor it lay. Their ma' had harangued them when Alder complained about the danger. "There's new settlements over here, an' you don't want to have a farm near 'em?" she had asked. "Come on now, boys, I know yer afraid of the boogie stories out of the elf-lands, but there's gonna be docks here some day soon, an' Seven Stars boats'll be shipping goods hither and yon. Now I won't hear another word of it! If ye' go out and mend the land yerselves we can get tenants in by next year... an that'll be a fair half hundred harps in the family coffers once all's said an' done. And wouldn't that be grand?"

Barley had to grant it to her, their ma' surely knew how to pull their strings. He and Alder had both dreamed of being adventurers, leaving Cairaw for the wilds of the Rivervale or the deep forests of Tailimisiä... mayhaps even venturing into dragon-haunted Elnuril itself and confronting the beasties that dwelled therein. But this was a little too close to being real. From time to time that stinking land of ruins and mists would send forth a raiding party to cross the rivers, to burn and slay and remind the elves who held Elnuril in true. Since the wars, old Pellitory had told them. He had been fond of history, and Alder said when he was young, their da' had gone out to study in Laituri under an elvish master.

Barley couldn't imagine that thin careworn face ever bent double beneath a candle reading from some dusty scroll or an ancient elvish tome. But, if Alder spake true then Pellitory had been a scholar's apprentice for some years before he met their ma'. It was hard to countenance; da' had always seemed such a stolid type, earthy and low to the ground. He knew the names of all the roots and bushes hereabouts, and could pick out and call back to ten different types of local birds. He had never seemed like the type for high-minded study.

It was ma', Alder had told him. He'd met her and she said it wasn't meet for a halfling lad to study elvish history and the laws of Daleädau. So they'd gone back to da's old farm at the Hedge and slowly built up a handful of holdings. They had tenants and paid their tax in barleys, grains, oats, and redfarne. They sold the rest at market, and made a tidy profit from it, and that was their lot.

After their da' died, Alder and he had gone through his things, cataloging them one by one. There were books there of which they had had no notion. Books like Fairmorton's Sieurs and Servants, Knighthood in the Empire, a scroll of elvish poetry, three huge books written in elvish script that neither he nor his brother could make heads or tails of.

Barley winced and clapped a hand to the back of his head. "Sting-flies are out today," he said.

"Yew dunce," Alder called from his seat. "I been pitchin' rocks at ye'. Where're yew lost, Barley? Ye' got that moony look on yer face."

Barley rolled his eyes. "Are you going to help me or not, Alder?" he asked pointedly.

"To what benefit?" Alder responded, giving Barley a look of his own. "We clear these fields for what? You heard what's going on in the moor... By summer this whole place up to the Hedge'll be overrun with fighting. You know it as well as I. We'd be clearing it for goblins, or worse!"

"You don't believe that, Alder," Barley said. "If that was true, the elves would be swarming all over here, building redoubts and ditches. There's no news of anything like that. Do you see knights? Do you see men-at-arms? All of Cairaw would be in alarm!" He couldn't believe his brother was using the old goblin raid excuse again. It was what he always said when he didn't want to work!

"Fine," Alder grumbled, "Give me one of those lines. And this time, pull your weight, ye scrawny crane."

That evening they were headed back down the lonely track towards the hedge that marked the proper boundary of Cairaw and, as far as Barley was concerned, the elvish law from Laituri. It stood only five or six hands high, but on the far side there was a deep ditch and a wooden platform for firing over. It kept boars, bears, and wolves away, but it would never stand up to a real assault. In 478 there had been a raid on the great farm-estates of the city but the elves had evacuated Cairaw long before the foes ever reached it. It simply couldn't hold against goblins and orcs and whatever other reaving-beasts roamed the wilds of the moors.

It was with great surprise that Barley saw lights swarming over all the hills of the village. He tugged at the hem of Alder's sleeve. "Can'ye see what's going on?" he asked as they both slowed. There was a single gate cut in the hedge, complete with a little bridge over the ditch, and it was through that which Alder now peered.

"Elves," he said, "Lots of them. Companies armed for war, with banners and armor and all." Barley jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow.

"Come on," he said. "What is it, for true? No jests."

"I'm not!" Alder hissed back. "There's the Twywynne's personal standard! Gods above, Leesha save me, she's sent her lords over the river!"

Barley was taken aback. "But that means..."

"Aye," Alder said. "I guess it wasn't so much hot wind after all."

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